How 'Deadpool's' Marketing Won Over Fanboys (and Everyone Else)

Deadpool Still 8 - H 2016
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Deadpool Still 8 - H 2016

The campaign for Ryan Reynolds' racy R-rated superhero movie ranged from the sublime — including billboards sporting the Emoji for poop — to taking over more traditional outlets like the Super Bowl.

A version of this story also appears in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The elusive and distracted fanboys have returned in force to the multiplex, first for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and now for Deadpool.

The Ryan Reynolds superhero movie opened to an astounding $132.4 million for the three-day Valentine's Day/Presidents Day weekend and $152.2 million for the four-day holiday, the biggest R-rated opening of all time and the seventh-biggest for a comic book opening. (The Merc with the Mouth just became Merc with the Money.)

No one saw those kinds of numbers coming — not even Fox. Expectations were tempered due to the film's R rating, unheard of for a comic book property. Not only that, it's a "hard" R. But the demographics tell the story: At least 62 percent of ticket buyers were males, says Fox. And 47 percent were under the age of 25, a higher share than any recent comic book movie, according to exit-polling service PostTrak. Nearly 37 percent of Deadpool's audience was between the ages of 18 and 24, a stellar turnout compared with just 19 percent for Guardians of the Galaxy and 19 percent for the more traditional X-Men: Days of Future Past (both of those films were rated PG-13).

Fox’s marketing operation is being given high marks for their provocative and irreverent campaign, which launched in earnest almost a year ago. “We treated this as a combination of a superhero movie and an R-rated comedy. And Ryan was the real genius behind this,” says Fox domestic marketing chief Marc Weinstock, who made waves at Sony when orchestrating District 9's marketing campaign.

Weinstock and his marketing and publicity staff at Fox were given carte blanche from the get-go. They worked closely with the Deadpool team — including Reynolds, first-time feature director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick — in tossing around various ideas. "We did all of them, and the ones that were great, we used," Weinstock says.

In March 2015, a first-look photo was release depicting Deadpool in his costume lying on a bearskin rug, mimicking the famous Burt Reynolds Playgirl centerfold. The image was a key test to see if fans approved of the costume. They did.

Then in the summer, Fox teased the first trailer at Comic-Con. Two weeks later, Fox and the filmmakers convinced Conan O’Brien’s show on TBS to change its rating to TV-MA so as to debut the first Deadpool red-band trailer. It was the most viewed red-band trailer in history, garnering 114 million hits. The second red-band trailer debuted on Christmas Day, nabbing 90 million views.

"This is probably as much variety as I've ever done for a campaign. And it traveled more because so much of it was outrageous and audacious," says Weinstock.

Box-office analyst Jeff Bock says fanboys ate it up. “Deadpool is unconventional in ways,” says Bock, “but I call it a return to the core values of what comic books offer — an abundance of energy, unbridled excitement, spontaneous comedy throughout and general snarkiness.”

Most everything about the Deadpool campaign was designed to go viral, including a billboard with a poop Emoji that, combined with a skull and an “L,” spelled out the character's name. That and another mock billboard making Deadpool look like a Nicholas Sparks rom-com appeared in fewer than 10 locations, but were the talk of social media. There was also a "touch yourself tonight" campaign in which Deadpool encourages men to check themselves for early signs of testicular cancer, an April Fool's Day gag suggesting the movie would be rated PG-13, and an eleventh-hour video from Betty White reviewing the movie, among numerous other gags and stunts.

Deadpool's campaign also had more traditional components, including green-band trailers. And the movie invaded the most mainstream of events, the Super Bowl, holding its official press junket the day before the game not far from Levi's Stadium in the Bay Area.

"At that point, we wanted to be everywhere. And we knew from tracking that we had reached beyond the core fans. We were getting everybody. Our whole plan was to be accessible as possible in explaining who Deadpool was while treating the fanbase with respect," says Weinstock.

Adds Bock: “I think everyone realized — especially after Guardians of the Galaxy and the success of that relatively unknown property — that the genre needed a kick in the pants. Audiences were finally ready for an anything-goes, language-be-damned film that poked fun at the world it inhabits, and delightfully breaks through the fourth wall. This bodes well for adding the comedic elements back into franchises like Spider-Man, which really hurt itself trying to be more like The Dark Knight than remain true to its ink-and-blotter origins.”

See below for some of Deadpool's marketing materials.